Linda Bernstein's mother prepares for seder
Linda Bernstein's mother prepares for seder

Matzah memories with my mother

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And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had taken out of Egypt, for it was not leavened, since they had been driven out of Egypt and could not delay; nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves.” (Exodus 12:39)

These “unleavened cakes” … what are they? The bread of affliction? A symbol of freedom? Rapid redemption? Humility? All the above?

I have fond memories of eating matzah on Passover. I always savored the first bite, for it meant that all the preparation had been done, not by me, mind you, but by my dear mother.

Ilse, or Omi as my children endearingly called her, could be seen standing on a chair, cleaning the Venetian blinds in my bedroom the day after she finished baking and distributing some 100 hamantaschen to family, friends and neighbors for Purim. She worked tirelessly for weeks to ready our home for the seder and the Passover week,  all in strict accordance with the laws of kashrut.

She cleaned out her kitchen days in advance of the seder. My siblings and I were relegated to eating breakfast in the basement, using the dryer as a table because she didn’t want any hametz in the kitchen (as she had already brought up her special Pesach dishes).

Oh, yes … there was fancy, gold-rimmed china that had a royal quality, but also a motley array of dishes, cups and silverware that we saw only on Pesach — and that symbolized the special, almost fairytale-like quality of the holiday.

Small metal plates (with a checkerboard, picnic-tablecloth design) served as carriers of the parsley, charoset, matzah and maror. A porcelain pitcher held nonalcoholic sweet-raisin wine she made just for us children. A two-toned, majestic, crystal goblet (which survived an escape from Germany) was filled and ready for Elijah’s visit.

No detail was ignored.

It was my mother’s big holiday, to be sure, and we were treated to her five-course meal of chopped liver, matzah ball soup, beet salad, roast beef, and an unlimited array of yummy desserts (including sweet-matzah kugel and dreamy wine cream). She lovingly made it all by hand from the German recipes she had used since childhood  — and somehow managed to bring to the U.S. in 1939 when she escaped the Nazis and came here at age 19, alone.

I must also mention our favorite matzah breakfast creation when we were kids: We called it “matzah brockel” (from the German gebrochen, meaning broken or crushed). We broke one or two squares of matzah into a cup or mug, crunching it down so it was tightly packed. Next, we poured heated milk over it, let it soak, then drank out the warm milk. Next, we placed a plate over the cup, flipped it over, removed the cup, and voila! We had a matzah tower to which we added cinnamon, sugar and jam.

But back to my original question: What is matzah?

To me, it’s a metaphor for life. It was baked in a hurry — reflective of how our lives go by so quickly, how plans can be interrupted, how sometimes there is no chance for “leavening” of our desires and wishes. We must learn to deal with life’s ups and downs and be willing to shift direction at a moment’s notice.

Secondly, matzah is brittle. It breaks easily and loses its shape. Life can be brittle, and when personal or societal tragedies happen, we often find ourselves without form or direction. The Covid-19 pandemic, for example, has shown us just how brittle life can be, and sometimes we are left to just pick up the pieces as best we can.

Thirdly, matzah often leaves behind a trail of crumbs (on the plate, the tablecloth or the floor). Our actions in life often leave behind crumbs of evidence that we have been there, for good and/or bad, thus creating our legacy. If we follow the mitzvot and dedicate ourselves to a life of maasim tovim (good deeds), the crumbs we leave behind are like seeds that can sprout into more good things: children and grandchildren to carry on our traditions, or helping someone in need (who, in turn, might go on to help somebody else). Conversely, if we live in a way that is less than morally just, we may leave behind crumbs of tragedy, hurt and loss in the wake of our selfish behavior.

Finally, matzah is moldable. We can smash it, soak it, fry it, bake it, or cover it with butter and jam. We can turn it into a kugel, stuffing, matzah balls, coatings, cakes and cookies. Even on our grocery shelves these days there are plain, whole-wheat, egg, organic, rye, gluten-free, shmurah, chocolate-covered and rosemary-and-garlic matzahs!

In life, we must also be malleable and work to optimize what we have.

We are each dished a set of basic ingredients: human qualities, skills, talents, strengths and weaknesses. It’s as if we are made of plain flour and water. We can accept what we have been dealt — just as eating plain matzah is fine … for a while.

Better that we can take our life gifts (and gifts they are) and, over time, by reforming, exploring and experimenting, create our own unique life path  — one that incorporates our basic ingredients but mixes in things that can enrich our lives and those of others.

We can take the plain matzah we have been served and make “matzah brockel,” forming our own sweet tower of life’s accomplishments.

The lesson of matzah can be instilled in our children, who have yet to be leavened. “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Answer by saying that tonight we thank God for the matzah we have been given, and that we celebrate a life well-led that it represents.

Because our ancestors had to make their matzah on the run, matzah reminds us that we are blessed to live without the shackles of slavery and that we have the freedom to live life fully, making the best of what we have and doing so with integrity.

Thanks Mom, for life lessons and the beautiful matzah memories.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

Linda Bernstein
Linda Bernstein

Linda Bernstein of San Francisco is a rabbinical intern at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley and a third-year rabbinical student at Academy for Jewish Religion California in Los Angeles. She is a Pharm.D.